Whisky Tinker

Posted on 2011 April 24

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Tinkers at Frankie's Tiki Room, Las Vegas

The desert is hot. And dry. You can get parched. But there’s an oasis out there called Las Vegas, where you never want for a beverage.

Into this Gomorrah speeds a large gray-blue van containing the tribal Celtic music band Wicked Tinkers — bagpiper Aaron, drummer Warren, horn player CJ, sound engineer Tiki King. And myself, the sales guy. The van tows a large double-axled trailer piled to the top with four tons of sound equipment, sales merchandise and musical instruments. The Tinkers are scheduled to perform at the Las Vegas International Military Tattoo, a musical extravaganza of pipe-and-drum bands, Scottish and Irish dancers and singers, and ensembles from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The Tinkers will also play at the Las Vegas Celtic Gathering and Highland Games in Floyd Lamb Park, just outside the city.

We pull into the parking lot of a questionable hotel-casino called “Terrible’s”. A sharp, dry wind blows across the lot. The sky is dusty. We find the registration desk and receive our room keys. We tote our luggage to the rooms, which are more to the Motel-6 end of the spectrum than, say, the Hyatt. But we’re a touring Celtic band, not J-Lo’s entourage. The rooms will have to do.

The arrangements of our stay entitle us to unlimited meals at the hotel buffet. No one in the band is wealthy, and we’re grateful for the convenience. We venture upstairs for dinner. The cafeteria food is bland but filling. Drummer Keith — a strapping, bearded, long-haired wild man who has flown in to perform with us — joins us. Overly enthusiastic, he downs a large plate of shrimp and tops it off with side dishes and a big dessert.

We drive the few blocks to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where rehearsals for the musical tattoo will take place inside the vast cavern of an indoor basketball stadium called the Thomas & Mack Center. We enter from a giant stage wing; I gaze up into the darkened tiers of seating, stunned by the sheer size of the interior. Catwalks eighty feet overhead sport flags that commemorate the many victories of the school’s team, the Running Rebels, who have often dominated NCAA basketball from this arena. I try to imagine eighteen thousand frenzied fans screaming inside the giant edifice. It must be terrifying.

Groups of musicians from various bands stand about in casual summer clothes, chatting or tuning their instruments. I try to imagine them in full dress regalia — black busbies on heads, instruments glinting — but I can’t quite picture it. The Tinkers block out their positions and choreographies for the concerts.

We return to the hotel, where most of us crowd into Keith’s big rental car — a Crown Vic that roars through traffic like the Devil’s advance vehicle — and park in a tiny lot next to the equally tiny Frankie’s Tiki Room, a bar just west of The Strip. Our own Tiki King, wearing his signature fez, Aloha shirt and Tiki necklace, has promised a great experience. Like a Pied Piper of the South Seas, he steers us inside. We crowd into the room and gaze about at the Tiki columns, fish netting, blowfish lights, and carved Pacific Island woodwork. We commandeer a long, lacquered table near the juke box with a good view of a wide-screen TV that plays old surf films, strip-club movies and monster flicks.

We purchase drinks from the bar and bring them to our table. I order a Mai Tai and watch as the cheerful bartender pours shot after shot of fancy rums into a good-sized glass of ice cubes, then adds mix and shakes it up, pours it back into the glass, and arranges a garnish on top. With a flourish and a big smile, he hands it to me. I take a sip: delicious.

At the table, we compare orders. A couple of the lads have chosen a cocoanut-flavored one called the Kahiki Kai. I steal a sip: it’s as tasty as my own drink, perhaps more so. CJ holds a libation with the ominous-sounding name of Bender Ender. But he’s quite confident he can handle it. CJ is a big guy. And he’s young.

The menu classifies concoctions by alcoholic severity. The Kahiki shows two skulls. Mine has four. Oh. But my drink is sweet and smooth, the burn of methanol well hidden. I consume half in under a minute.

“How’s your drink?” CJ asks. I lift it and nod: “Tasty!” I offer him a sip. Somebody pushes their glass toward me and I take a swallow. It, too, is delicious. In fact, all the drinks taste smooth and sweet and sophisticated. I don’t know much about tropical drinks; suddenly this place seems like a brilliant discovery.

I’d been a non-drinker for decades until the Tinkers wheedled me into joining them in their sudsy evening celebrations. Back in college I engaged in an insanely massive drinking binge at a party toward the end of my freshman year. (A decade later I heard rumors that I had dropped out and become a hopeless drug fiend.) Since then, I’ve hardly imbibed at all. It’s easy for me to make beginner’s mistakes.

I sip again at my drink and watch the TV screen, where strippers from the 1960s spin pasties and wiggle and dance. These old movies were grade-C efforts, but the women were good looking and well shaped. Their taa-taas are smaller than what you can view in more recent movies of any grade. It occurs to me that boob enhancement was not yet the showbiz norm fifty years ago.

The time passes pleasantly with laughing and toasting and joking. I’m most of the way through my drink when a charming feeling of warmth and mild dizziness creeps up into my head like a moonrise of happiness. I am lulled. The psychic moon continues to rise until its tidal pull begins to spin my world counter-clockwise. The lads are talking but I don’t quite understand what they’re saying. The feeling shifts from pleasant to intense. It’s as if someone walked up to me, put a friendly arm around my shoulders, and then slowly squeeed my neck into a headlock. I realize, too late, just exactly what the menu’s four skulls mean.

I try to climb down from my stool and find that I can still walk upright. I move unsteadily for the bathrooms. The two doors sport nearly identical Tiki head carvings; I can’t tell which is for men. I choose one at random and stumble inside. There are no urinals. I stare about wildly. Panicked, I back out and hear Aaron shouting, “The other door! The other door!” At that point I notice that the Tiki-head carving on the door I had chosen has lipstick painted onto its mouth. Aha! I find my way carefully across the entire two feet of space to the non-lipstick door and steer myself into the correct bathroom. I find an honest-to-god urinal to my literal relief why aren’t they everywhere what’s gotten into architects anyway?

Back at our table, I’m in a terrific mood, enjoying the company immensely. I giggle and laugh at nearly anything anybody says, guffawing and commenting loudly and gesturing elaborately. Everyone seems to be smiling, so I assume I’m at my charming best. The Mai Tai sure got the job done. Then somebody shoves a second drink toward me. It’s called a Muddy Puddle or something. I down it in a few gulps.

On the way home, the others conspire to stow me in the Crown Vic’s front passenger bucket seat, where I proceed to chat non-stop with driver Keith, punching him on the shoulder, laughing and burping. I lean my head back and watch the lights of Vegas swim by. The Strip careens past us with its paradise of neon and ersatz architecture and crowds of cars and pedestrians. My foggy brain is struck by sudden clarity: this city makes perfect sense! I’m sure of it. I’m not quite sure how to articulate it, though. The moon soars high overhead, flooding the sky with a navy-blue sheen. I comment on all of this as it occurs to me, regaling Keith with my insights until his responses become rote and polite. As we pull into the hotel parking lot, I lean over and demand of him, “Am I bothering you?” There’s a pause. Then he answers, “No, of course not.” Keith is definitely a great guy. I’m sure of it.

In the hotel I somehow find the way to my room. I fumble with the electronic key card and manage to let myself in. I drop down onto the floor, and, leaning against a wall, make a quick phone call to a girlfriend, who must listen patiently as I ramble on about nothing in particular. Finally she begs off, and I sit alone, smiling and happy and dizzy, laughing at nothing. Tonight I’ve definitely gotten into the spirits of Vegas. So to speak. But it’s time for bed.

The next morning I am miraculously none the worse for wear despite only five hours’ sleep. Once again I stand inside the cavernous sports arena as the Tinks practice their entrances. Keith isn’t feeling well; last night’s shrimp disagreed vigorously with him. But he’s a trouper, drum hoisted, playing on cue. The rehearsal irons out rough spots in the timing between acts.

We break for lunch at the bland hotel buffet. The Tinkers return to the arena for a second run-through. But the lack of sleep has caught up with me, and, with no specific duties this afternoon, I stay behind and try to catch a few winks. I lie down on the bed. As I drift off, there’s a knock at the door. I answer it; it’s the cleaning lady. I let her in and sit in a corner chair, reading email on my cell phone while she makes a desultory attempt to straighten up the place. She smoothes the bedsheets — nobody changes them at hotels anymore — and vacuums only near the entrance. No wonder the soles of my feet take on a vaguely brown sheen after walking on the aging carpet. She wipes down the bathroom, then sprays air freshener. “Done!” she announces, and leaves. Again I crawl onto the bed, and in moments I’m watching eyelid movies.

During the evening run-through, with time on my hands I explore the gigantic arena’s long delivery tunnels and winding hallways. This place is huge. A person can get lost in it. I manage promptly to do so. Eventually I find my way back to the arena floor, where I sit uselessly as Tiki King monitors the sound board. The Tinkers will perform an acoustic set — Aaron on Scottish small pipes — in a Medieval tableau around a fake campfire as the audience gets seated. Then there’s an opening number by one of the bands. Aaron will be the show’s first Highland bagpiper. He’ll play a tune as he marches alone across the vast concrete floor, then veer off to a wing as a massed Scottish-Canadian pipe band sweeps into the arena. The Marines form up next, playing and even singing as they march in lines and shapes like the best halftime band anybody ever heard. I have a sudden urge to enlist. That’s the whole point, I suppose.

The other services take their turns, and each performs a set interestingly different from the others. The Army brings, not musicians, but a male drill team that twirls and hurls rifles while marching in perfect formation — silent, coolly competent. I’m glad they’re on our side.

The show will feature not one, but two Elvis impersonators. It’s Vegas, baby.

The rest of the bands are very capable; the music they play is top notch; the program’s salutes to the American flag and the fallen of World War I are stirring and patriotic. The show will be great.

The bands break for the night. Once more, it’s time to exercise this nation’s hard-earned right to imbibe, so again we drive over to Frankie’s Tiki Room. This time I’ve taken the precaution of eating something before we get there, to absorb some of the alcohol and slow its rush into my brain. Aaron and Tiki King call it “crafting the buzz”, and I want to master this art instead of the other way around. Again I choose a Mai Tai, and again we sit at the long table and watch silly movies on the TV screen. But this time I sip my drink very slowly. Somehow I manage to moderate its effects; I simply feel warm and friendly and happy. The psychic arm around my shoulder does not tighten its grip.

A Vegas conductor, Jay Atwood, drops by to join us. Jay was the Tinker horn player for three years until he got busy with casino shows. During the frivolity and laughter, Jay presents us with a weird puzzle: he insists that the sentence “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo” is grammatically correct and complete. At this point in the drinking, none of us is mentally competent to understand this little enigma, but we argue loudly in defense of whatever theories our brains can concoct.

Friday morning is the first full-dress rehearsal, to be performed for an audience of school children. I’ve been promised a meeting with the director of merchandise, who will meet me on the concourse that encircles the top level of the arena. I walk across the wide, polished concrete of the grand entry area and stand next to the merch alcove. Busloads of school children begin to pour in. My head juts above them like an island in a sea as they swarm past on the way to their seats. The show begins. I peek through a curtain and watch as Aaron plays the pipes, limned in a spotlight as he marches dramatically across the darkened stage floor. Suddenly the house lights come up and a massive band of pipes and drums marches dramatically into the arena. The kids scream and cheer. I get goose bumps.

Finally I locate the merch manager. We agree that I can use their sales tables this evening as I see fit. “If you do well, we’ll charge you, but if sales are slow, we might not worry about our cut.” That’s very kind. It also means he thinks our sales will be paltry.

The matinee is a hit. Lights play across the arena floor, while up in the darkened seats the kids wave their cell phones to the music, the light from the phone screens flickering and undulating. When they cheer, the noise is deafening. I can only imagine how loud it must be inside the arena when four times as many fans get rolling during the evening shows.

After the matinee, the Tinkers drive northwest, out beyond the edge of town, to Floyd Lamb Park, a green square of oasis in the middle of miles of empty desert. The park started out as a divorce ranch, where out-of-state bigwigs would bide their time for a couple of weeks until they met Nevada’s minimum residency requirement, then use the court system to be rid of their spouses. The ranch owners imported peacocks to help reduce the rattlesnake population, and the birds have been there ever since, cawing and squawking and parading about, largely oblivious to human visitors. This weekend the park will host the Scottish Games, and the Wicked Tinkers will perform as a featured band. We put up the Tinker Tent and set out CDs and t-shirts to sell during the two-day festival.

The evening tattoo (“Turn the beer taps to, and back to base, soldiers!”) goes very well, and though only about 1,800 attend, they applaud and cheer and get teary-eyed and give standing ovations. Three-fourths of the way through the show, the Tinkers burst onto the arena floor, dancing and leaping as they play “Cabar Feidh” while bright spots and green lighting effects sweep the stage. Aaron spins and jumps as he plays the pipes; CJ swings his Celtic horn up and down and the instrument booms with rhythmic resonance; Warren and Keith perform a drum duet as the crowd claps along. The lads make for a spicy contrast to the buttoned-down formality of the military bands. The audience roars its approval. Later, some of the crowd buy Tinker t-shirts and CDs, though less than we’d hoped.

Afterward, most of the band, along with a few Vegas friends, gather at Aaron’s hotel room for drinks. The room looks like an explosion in a beer factory. Empties and cups litter every surface; clothes lie in disarray on the floor. It’s awesome. I ask, “What is this, a dorm room?” Aaron replies, “We’re working on the patina.” On a counter lie several grapefruit, ready for cutting and serving with drinks. Grapefruit are a time-honored tradition with Aaron and Tiki. It’s something to do with the Hunter Thompson book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where Gonzo journalism got invented and grapefruit reigned supreme. I find a styrofoam cup and drop a large shot of whisky into it. I’m tired and a bit hungry, but I figure one drink won’t hurt. In the crowded room I clear a spot on a low dresser and sit.

The discussion turns to bar hopping. Some want to visit Frankie’s again, but one of our Vegas friends suggests an assortment of dive bars that might prove entertaining. I turn to her: “Speaking of dives, is Terrible’s considered a ‘dive casino’?” She grins and nods. “Yes. Definitely.” I think back: during recent visits the band stayed twice at the rank Binion’s, once at the crumbling downtown Plaza, and now here at Terrible’s. Sure, last year we managed an upgrade to New York New York, but lately we’re batting over .700 on Vegas dive hotels. Sometimes, as they say, you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.

The room’s “patina” seems to have coated my brain, and suddenly it might be a good idea to sit on the floor. I figure, if I fall, I’ll already be there. Apparently a large shot of whisky really is too much for this drinking neophyte. Still, the sensations are pleasant, and I find the floor quite comfy. I’d be happy to sit there indefinitely. At this point, the gang decides to head out, lured by The Strip on a Friday evening. But it’s past midnight and I have a long day tomorrow, so instead of tagging along I rouse my twirly head and haul it back to my room, where it finds a pillow and switches off.

The sun rises clear in a warm sky, and by 8:30 we’re at the desert park, opening the Tinker Tent. Soon the event is well underway, athletes competing over by the lake, vendors selling their wares, musicians taking turns on the main stage. Peacocks wail randomly. Our sales are okay but nothing to write home about. The Tinks perform their high-energy music spiced with droll humor. Now and then they jump down from the stage to play among the audience. At one point a troupe of belly dancers lines up in front of the stage and shimmies to the Tinker music, hips sashaying, arms undulating. Finally the Tinks perform their signature tune, “Wallop the Cat”, and I bring out the Tinker mascot — a big stitched-together kitty doll with an eye patch, one stocking, and a huge grin — and swing it around in the air, making Wallop dance a jig while the crowd chants along. I set the doll down on the stage and dash back to the tent, where people are lining up to buy CDs and tees.

At the Saturday evening tattoo the audience enthuses to the music and marching. Tonight a paltry thousand seats are filled, but the arena has a way of taking a handful of people and building their cheers into a thunderous roar. The energy level is as high as yesterday. Sales dip a bit, but I calculate that, per seat sold, we do better than on Friday. These desert ventures have never been lucrative. We’re always at the mercy of the Vegas Fates as they roll their Dice of Fortune.

The show ends; the tattoos are history. We load out our equipment and drive back to the hotel. This is our last night in Vegas, so naturally we decide to visit Frankie’s one more time. I take the precaution of grabbing a bag of hot cashews and a large cookie, hoping to fill my stomach enough to cushion the Mai Tai. And it works: I maintain a lovely buzz and a high energy level as we laugh and joke our way through a couple of hours of rowdiness. Keith’s been a great pal, ferrying us back and forth and participating in the bibulosity these past few nights, so I buy him one of the signature drinks as a thank-you. In fact, I’ve been treated all week to so many drinks that I’ve lost count, and by now I owe beverages to several people. It’s clear we’ll have to visit more Tiki rooms in the months to come so I can return the favor.

Sunday is hot, and I swelter in the Tinker Tent as the lads perform a couple of sets while peacocks caw inanely. At Games there is always plenty of beer and whisky on hand — fans ply the Tinks with beverages, and there’s a courtesy bar for the entertainers. Over at the Clan Inebriated tent it’s not hard to talk owner Dennis Strawhun into rustling up one of his patented five-rum Argyles — always refreshing on a hot, dry day in the desert.

People are tired and impatient after a long weekend, and the afternoon performances are running late, and a dispute breaks out between bands over who should now be onstage. Heated words are exchanged. For a tense moment, I wonder if a good old-fashioned Celtic brawl will break out. But the moment passes. Tension drains. The show goes on, as it must. 

The Games wind down. We pack up, exhausted after the long week, sweating as we stow equipment and merchandise. The sun drops toward the western mountains, and we head out, back toward home and what we Angelenos laughingly call “civilization”.

I look out the van window at Las Vegas as it recedes into the distance. Vegas, you tall drink in an empty desert! You, who lure us with dreams of fortune and blur us with overindulgence. You, who demand much and give little. Be warned! The Tinkers will return next year.

* * * *

[This essay re-edited 2015 Oct 03]

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